AILSA CHANG, HOST:
President Biden talks a lot about China when he's talking up his infrastructure plan.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It will grow the economy, make us more competitive around the world, promote our national security interests and put us in a position to win the global competition with China in the upcoming years.
CHANG: The framing says a lot about how Biden views the world and how he views the politics of passing an infrastructure plan. NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow has more.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: A lot of the China talk has to do with domestic politics, making the plan seem like it's in the broad national interest.
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BIDEN: And I don't think you'll find a Republican today in the House or Senate - maybe I'm wrong, gentlemen - who doesn't think we have to improve our infrastructure. You know, China and other countries are eating our lunch.
DETROW: But the repeated references and how the White House thinks the plan would level the economic playing field with China also demonstrate how the Biden administration is approaching both foreign and economic policy.
DALEEP SINGH: You know, if we don't act, we're just going to fall further behind. China spends three times as much on infrastructure as a share of GDP than we do.
DETROW: Daleep Singh is a deputy national security adviser in the White House, as well as deputy director of the National Economic Council.
SINGH: Well, look. I mean, China has global ambition, and their global ambition is centered upon their economy and their technological progress.
DETROW: The administration is worried China is outpacing the U.S. on physical infrastructure, but also research on artificial intelligence, high-speed computing and communications. There's a second, broader theme here, too. It's the administration's comfort with using the power of the federal government pretty aggressively to shift around private industries.
SINGH: And so - look, we're convinced that if we just leave it to the private sector, the amount of innovative capacity that we're going to generate is going to be lower than what is good for America, good for our national interests. And so we're thinking really hard about, how can the government help to shift incentives, provide resources, provide coordination.
DETROW: This view is part of Biden's return to a more traditional, unapologetic approach to big government from a Democratic administration. So far, the approach to both domestic and foreign policy isn't winning over Republicans.
RICK SCOTT: I don't think it has anything to do with reality.
DETROW: Florida Senator Rick Scott has been an increasingly vocal critic of China. But like many other Republican lawmakers, he thinks Biden's bill is too broad, and he thinks the administration isn't taking a hard enough stance on China and its human rights and economic record. And as Scott and other Republicans on the Hill are criticizing Biden for not being aggressive enough, others worry Biden's constant focus on taking on China is too much and too protectionist.
SCOTT LINCICOME: I didn't expect him to be so, for lack of a better word, Trumpy on the trade rhetoric.
DETROW: Scott Lincicome is a senior fellow at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. He sees the us vs. them framing of all these policies, as well as the fact that, so far, Biden is keeping Trump tariffs in place, as a different strain of the same nationalism that animated Trump's foreign policy. Daleep Singh argues Biden's actually trying to tamp down nationalism.
SINGH: If we don't deliver for our middle class, for example, then our ambition to lead again on the world stage is going to fail. Why? Because people will turn inward, not because they have any malice, but because that's what economic insecurity and social displacement and the loss of dignity does to a society.
DETROW: Which is part of why tying its foreign policy efforts to boosting the middle class has become a defining goal for the Biden administration.
Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington.
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